Published 12:00 am Friday, January 28, 2011

By Emery P. Dalesio
Associated Press
RALEIGH — North Carolina environmental regulators should restore a key state water certification revoked amid allegations an Alcoa Inc. subsidiary intentionally withheld information, the company said Friday.
Alcoa Power Generating Inc. is appealing last month’s decision in an effort to remove a big obstacle blocking the company’s effort to renew its license to operate hydroelectric dams along the Yadkin River for up to 50 years.
Alcoa denied Friday that it withheld information about the ability to meet the state’s water quality standard for dissolved oxygen.
The state Division of Water Quality initially approved Alcoa’s plans on the condition that it include a $240 million guarantee that Alcoa make improvements to its system. The company’s four hydroelectric dams are not currently meeting standards as they draw deep water with low dissolved oxygen levels and discharge that water into the river.
A court fight challenging the water certification ended after opponents pointed to internal company e-mails in which company officials expressed concern that downstream waters may not meet state standards. State officials cited the e-mails in their decision to revoke the certification Dec. 1.
“In its revocation notice, the DWQ quotes selected portions of e-mails that do not provide the complete story and were taken out of context,” Alcoa Energy President Rick Bowen said in a statement Friday. “If you read the entire e-mail chains in context, and review the entire record, you find that no material information was withheld.”
State regulators received notice of Alcoa’s appeal and had no immediate comment, Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesman Jamie Kritzer said. The company’s appeal enters a process of administrative hearings followed by the possibility either side could appeal further to state court, he said.
Meanwhile, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional criminal investigation division said agents have spent weeks probing allegations that Alcoa’s shuttered aluminum smelter on the river is violating pollution laws. There has been no decision whether to launch a formal criminal investigation, said Maureen O’Mara, the EPA’s Special Agent in Charge in Atlanta.
“We are looking into the allegations and we’ll make that decision soon,” O’Mara said.
An EPA investigation was requested last month by state Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, who has opposed Alcoa’s relicensing efforts.
“We are in the process of doing our own review and that has not been completed,” Alcoa spokesman Mike Belwood said.
Pittsburgh-based Alcoa is fighting to renew an expired license to operate Yadkin River dams built decades ago to supply electricity to the Stanly County aluminum smelter that once employed hundreds.
Alcoa now sells the electricity to commercial customers. The company estimated in 2006 that the dams generated almost $44 million a year in revenues. Over 50 years, that could mean revenues of more than $2 billion, an amount that could multiply if demand for clean power booms.
“We hope that our appeal will mean quick reinstatement of the water quality certification process so we can continue to work toward a new license,” said Bowen.